For Impeachment Witnesses, Testifying Can Cost $15,000

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WASHINGTON — As a parade of State Department officials began trooping to Capitol Hill this month to testify in the impeachment inquiry imperiling President Trump, officials from the department’s employee association dispatched an appeal to its nearly 17,000 members.

Send money, they pleaded.

For the second time since Mr. Trump took office, an investigation into his conduct has set off a scramble across Washington for lawyers to represent witnesses — and for the money to pay them. This time, instead of high-rolling players in Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, many of the witnesses are career government workers who helped shape or carry out policy toward Ukraine.

On civil-servant salaries, they have racked up bills of $15,000 or more for lawyers who can guide them through the morning-to-dusk sessions before congressional inquisitors. Already caught in a struggle between two branches of government, many are now worried about how to pay for legal advice that can cost $750 to $1,500 an hour.

“We have never faced a comparable situation,” said Eric Rubin, a senior American diplomat who runs the organization, the American Foreign Service Association. “Our colleagues are facing unprecedented legal bills.”

He said his association has received a steady stream of donations, mostly in small amounts, since asking for them on Oct. 8.

The impeachment inquiry has some pluses for lawyers: opportunities to wrestle with high-profile legal issues like the limits of executive privilege and to reap free publicity escorting clients through a gantlet of cameras to the Capitol chambers where depositions are being conducted. At the least, they get a front-row seat in an inquiry that has gripped the nation.

But a moneymaker it is not. Even if a client pays in full, representing a single congressional witness is far less profitable than the corporate work that is the lifeblood of many Washington law firms.

“I don’t think anybody takes these cases because they are lucrative. They are not,” said Robert Luskin, who represents Gordon D. Sondland, a wealthy Republican donor-turned-ambassador and one of the inquiry’s few deep-pocketed witnesses.

“You do these cases because you believe in the client or you believe in the cause or you believe in the process, not because they are financially rewarding.”

Over the years, he said, he has asked so many friends to represent civil servants in politically charged inquiries that “when these are going on, they don’t want to take my call.”

So far, nearly a dozen witnesses have cooperated with the inquiry, most of whom are still in the government.

Their pool of potential lawyers is restricted because ethics rules bar federal officials from accepting free or discounted legal services from lawyers that have business before their agencies, according to Virginia Canter, the chief ethics counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit watchdog group. Exceptions are made if the lawyer is a friend.

And while senior government officials are sometimes encouraged to buy inexpensive legal liability insurance, the policies typically cover only the cost of a bargain-basement lawyer skilled in handling routine employment battles over issues like dismissals and discipline, according to one senior diplomat who is knowledgeable about such policies.

The witnesses in the impeachment inquiry need a higher caliber of legal advice because testifying is fraught with pitfalls. Witnesses still in government service could be risking their jobs by cooperating in defiance of a White House directive declaring the inquiry illegitimate.

None of them can fact-check their testimony against official records of meetings and phone calls because the administration is withholding such documents. But they must be mindful of what they say, because lying to Congress is a crime that carries a punishment of up to five years in prison.

Typically, Mr. Luskin said, he would have spent days going through officials records to prepare a witness like Mr. Sondland, the American ambassador to the European Union who testified for nearly nine hours this month. But the State Department has refused to turn over those documents, so Mr. Sondland testified based largely on memory.

Members of Congress publicly criticized him for all the times he said he could not remember. “It is much more difficult in these circumstances,” Mr. Luskin said.

The witnesses have relied on a small and disparate group of lawyers, ranging from senior litigators like Lawrence S. Robbins, who has argued 18 cases before the Supreme Court, to Margaret E. Daum, who joined the firm of Squire Patton Boggs just seven months ago after more than a decade leading investigations in Congress.

Mr. Robbins represents Marie L. Yovanovitch, whom Mr. Trump forced out as ambassador to Ukraine in May. Ms. Daum represents Kurt D. Volker, who resigned last month as the special envoy to Ukraine, and Philip T. Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia.

Other lawyers have deep backgrounds in intelligence or foreign policy, including John Bellinger, a legal adviser to the National Security Council and the State Department under President George W. Bush, and Lee S. Wolosky, a national security official under both Mr. Bush and President Bill Clinton.

Mr. Bellinger represents William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine who on Tuesday provided the most damning testimony to date against the president. He also represents Michael McKinley, who quit his senior State Department post after the White House forced out Ms. Yovanovitch.

Mr. Wolosky, who represents Fiona Hill, a former Russia expert on Mr. Trump’s National Security Council, wound up in a standoff with the White House Counsel’s Office over his client’s testimony.

Three days before Ms. Hill was to testify, two lawyers from the counsel’s office argued to him in a telephone conversation that the discussions she was privy to were protected by executive privilege.

Mr. Wolosky replied in a letter that not only had those topics already been aired publicly, but that government misconduct wipes away privilege claims. Ms. Hill’s testimony on Oct. 14 illuminated the divisions within the White House over the president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine’s leader for political gain.

Andrew Bakaj and Mark S. Zaid, who represent the C.I.A. officer whose whistle-blower complaint touched off the impeachment investigation, are fighting a different battle. Republicans are trying to force their client to testify, hoping it would reveal a bias against Mr. Trump. But his lawyers are trying to keep his identity confidential for his protection. They also say investigators no longer need him because a stream of other witnesses, many with firsthand information, have given accounts.

Neither that whistle-blower nor a second one is paying them, but a charitable organization established to aid whistle-blowers has raised about $220,000 to cover their firm’s work.

As investigators assemble facts and work their way through witnesses, the legal bills are certain to mount. The House Intelligence Committee, which is leading the investigation, has yet to summon a parade of high-profile witnesses, including John R. Bolton, who left last month as national security adviser.

Mr. Bolton has already secured a high-powered lawyer: Charles J. Cooper, who represented Jeff Sessions when he was attorney general during the Russia investigation.

Mr. Cooper also represents Charles M. Kupperman, the former acting national security adviser, who is expected to testify next week.

Julian E. Barnes and Michael S. Schmidt contributed reporting.